The other day as I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed a friend request popped up. One of my former students at the high school where I had once worked, a student whom I was quite fond of, wanted to chat. Knowing the rules of the NYC Department of Education, I gently reminded him that I could not accept his friend request, at which point he let me know he had dropped out of school.
His news, although not surprising considering the statistics, made me reconsider and rethink my role as a Special Education teacher, and how often the field has failed our students by not creating and investing in educational plans beyond that of the IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) that focuses only on the academic portion of a student’s progress through their formal education. Instead, we must create “Individual Learning Plans” that will actually “plan” for our students with disabilities after they graduate from high school and tap into their strengths and interests to ensure their success beyond the classroom.
At best, the statistics are alarming. New York City released their High School graduation rates this past fall, which only served to validate the feelings of let-down for the many students currently being served who have IEP’s. The data on the NYC DOE website include those students with IEP’s who are what is called “standard-assessed,” meaning that these students are only mildly-disabled — for example, those with a specific learning disability like a processing disorder — and can thus meet the same academic standards as their non-SWD peers. The statistics showed a marked increase in graduation rates for all students, but the disparity between students classified as non-SWD (Students with Disabilities) and SWD’s is staggering. In 2012, NYC boasted a 78.5% graduation rate among all students. My concern was in the graduation rates by demographic. Students with disabilities graduated at a rate of 44.8%, almost 30% lower than the overall average.
Even more alarming? Non-SWD students graduating with an Advanced Regents diploma hovered around 22.2%, indicating that only 22.2% of students graduating in NYC were deemed “College and Career Ready,” while SWD students graduating with an Advanced Regents Diploma topped out at a whopping 1.5%.
While the statistics are truly thought provoking, what shocks me is the fact that only 1.5% of SWD in NYC, even those with very mild learning differences, are college-ready. Why is this shocking? With all the focus on preparing our students for college, oftentimes the real issue is overlooked. The focus in every school district is data, such as high school graduation rates, and how to effectively use the data to inform quality instruction for students with disabilities. But it is evident to me that we must get beyond statistics and address the fact that students with mild disabilities are not receiving the education they need to be competitive in a world where academic proficiency is required for more and more jobs. It is also evident to me that specific, individual plans need to be put in place that will allow these students to be independent and productive beyond the confines of being “college ready,” allowing them to explore possibilities that current mandates, policies, and theories have excluded, including workforce preparation programs that tap into specific student strengths and interests.
My student, let’s call him “Joe,” is currently unemployed and unprepared for life beyond the formal education we provided him in the classroom. He told me that he is looking for a program that will help him become certified in one of the construction trades, and he hopes to explore options through the various skilled construction trade unions that exist in New York City. But at 17, and without a high school diploma, even entry into a skilled trade union will prove to be very difficult. Had we implemented a workforce readiness program for Joe and others like him, his future outcome would definitely be different than the one he faces today.
As an educator, I will not let him become another high school dropout statistic, but this shouldn’t be the goal of an educator after the fact. Joe should already have the tools he needs to be successful and independent, as should any student whose focus is not to be college-ready but to live a rewarding and full life.